Early NFC South Divisional Rankings and Projections
The NFC South is known for its season-to-season parity and fans shouldn't expect anything less than a completely new looking division in 2014.
Each member of the division experienced significant roster turnover this offseason and several longtime linchpins, such as Carolina's Steve Smith, are now absent from the South.
There has been plenty of talent inflow as well with Atlanta and Tampa Bay looking to claw their way out of the basement of the NFC and dipping deep into their wallets to do so. But have they done enough to compete with 2013 playoff teams Carolina and New Orleans?
Ahead, you'll find out the answer to that question and find out which team is ahead of the rest in the chase for the division title in 2014.
4. Atlanta Falcons
2013 Record: 4-12 (T-3rd NFC South)
Strengths: Receivers, Quarterback, Right Guard
Weaknesses: Tight End, Left Tackle
The Falcons bolstered what was arguably the worst offensive line in the NFL in 2013 with the additions of veteran Jon Asamoah (guard) and rookie first-round pick Jake Matthews (tackle). Both will hold their own on the right side of the line, but a weakness will be exposed at left tackle, where Sam Baker is a subpar starter who is coming off a knee injury.
Baker wasn't the only Falcons starter to battle injury in 2013 so the unit should improve with health. However, it's tough to expect greatness out of this offense with the departure of one of the league's best pass-catching tight ends ever, Tony Gonzalez, and no viable replacement.
Strengths: Nose Tackle
Weaknesses: Strong Outside Linebacker, Strong Inside Linebacker
Atlanta's starting defensive lineup is very pedestrian; it lacks the star power of the division's other defenses. Although bringing in nose tackle Paul Soliai is a good step towards shoring up the run defense, the unit will continue to struggle until they find solutions at linebacker that aren't Kroy Biermann and Paul Worrilow.
Atlanta will be a more formidable team in 2014 as long as they don't catch the injury bug again. The additions along the offensive line will better keep Matt Ryan off his back and allow him to utilize a very strong receiving corps that includes one of the league's young stars at the position, Julio Jones.
However, the Falcons will still struggle to find consistency in the run game and their equivalent incapacity to slow their opponents' rushing attacks, as well as a very tough schedule, will postpone their return to the playoffs for at least one more season.
Predicted 2014 Record: 6-10
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2013 Record: 4-12 (T-3rd NFC South)
Strengths: Left Guard, Left Tackle, Right Tackle
Weaknesses: Right Guard, Quarterback
Tampa Bay is putting the hopes of its offense's success squarely on the shoulders of quarterback Josh McCown. By adding 6'5" receiver Mike Evans in the draft and linemen Anthony Collins (left tackle) and Evan Dietrich-Smith (center) in free agency, they've ensured that he has an adequate supporting cast.
However, I'm not ready to jump on the McCown bandwagon, despite his gaudily efficient 2013 statistics. Quarterbacks don't regularly ascend from mediocrity to greatness at age 34 after 11 professional seasons, so I'm going to wait and see before I count on McCown to be the man to bring Tampa Bay back to the playoffs.
Strengths: Left Defensive Tackle, Weakside Linebacker
Weaknesses: Right Defensive Tackle, Strongside Linebacker
The Buccaneers' defense was very solid a season ago and they should be just as good, if not better, this season. Star cornerback Darrelle Revis has moved on, but he's replaced by Alterraun Verner, who is a better fit for Lovie Smith's Cover 2 defense.
Little else has changed besides the addition of defensive end Michael Johnson, who further bolsters a defensive line that is led by one of the league's best defensive tackles, Gerald McCoy.
Tampa Bay also has a tough schedule this season in comparison to division mates Carolina and New Orleans, but they should get through it while keeping in striking distance of a Wild Card spot. I don't expect them to ultimately win one of those two spots, but this will be a great year to build off for a very young team.
Predicted 2014 Record: 8-8
2. Carolina Panthers
2013 Record: 12-4 (1st NFC South)
Strengths: Center, Fullback, Quarterback
Weaknesses: Receivers, Left Tackle, Right Tackle
On paper Carolina's offense appears to be the division's weakest, but it also has the potential to take huge steps forward if new left tackle Byron Bell proves his skeptics wrong and Cam Newton makes the most out of a receiving corps that is filled with third-string caliber players.
The play of rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin will also play a large role in determining whether this offense struggles or strives in 2014. He is the lone wild card among a group of low-ceiling receivers, so solid production from him would be huge.
Strengths: Middle Linebacker, Right Defensive End, Left Defensive End, Weakside Linebacker, Left Defensive Tackle
Weaknesses: Cornerbacks, Strong Safety
The Panthers' secondary lags behind those of their divisional foes, but they compensate with the league's best front seven; Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson were the main components to a league-leading pass rush in 2013 (60 total sacks) and Luke Kuechly captains perhaps the most athletic corps of 4-3 linebackers in the league.
The team did lose starters Captain Munnerlyn (cornerback) and Mike Mitchell (safety) to free agency, but replacements Antoine Cason and Roman Harper are capable, considering how little Carolina asks from its secondary.
Carolina's defense should be elite once again in 2014 with the progression of its four projected second-year starters—defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, cornerback Melvin White and strongside linebacker A.J. Klein—and continued leadership of the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Kuechly.
The offense is far more of an unknown and will determine the team's chances of defending their division championship or even returning to the playoffs at all this season.
Predicted 2014 Record: 10-6
1. New Orleans Saints
2013 Record: 11-5 (2nd NFC South)
Strengths: Tight End, Quarterback, Right Guard, Left Guard
The Saints' offense is a well-oiled machine that is the product of years of collaboration between quarterback Drew Brees and one of the league's great offensive minds, head coach Sean Payton.
Gone is versatile scatback Darren Sproles, but new to the team is rookie receiver Brandin Cooks, who has the elite speed and quickness to become a matchup nightmare for defenses and the cause of sweet dreams for Brees and Payton.
Strengths: Free Safety, Right Defensive End
Weaknesses: Strong Inside Linebacker
New Orleans is known less for its defense, but the talent is there once again in 2014. Defensive backs Malcolm Jenkins (safety) and Jabari Greer (cornerback) are out and in are free agent signees Jairus Byrd and Champ Bailey.
Byrd is an elite playmaker from the free safety position, but Bailey figures to play in a less featured role, as age (35) has not treated his game well as of late.
The Saints have the easiest path to the playoffs of all South teams and could end up as one of the last remaining undefeated teams considering the ease of their schedule early on.
Expect lots of three-receiver sets from the offense and on the other side of the ball, lots of nickel defense.
With the best quarterback in the division and fewer positional holes than any team in the conference, New Orleans is the safe bet to win the NFC South in 2014.
Predicted 2014 Record: 13-3
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